Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Asia’s world city? Hong Kong is mediocre at best, if we’re honest

CommentInsight & Opinion
Peter Kammerer says stagnant Hong Kong, with its low liveability rankings, need only look at Melbourne to see what a real globalised city offers residents by way of living
standards and civil liberties

Hong Kong’s government has been throwing around that tired old “Asia’s world city” tag since 2001. Anyone who gets to experience what’s on offer elsewhere knows that’s not true; it may arguably have been once, but no longer. We’ve fallen so far behind on representing global standards and values that such a claim is a joke. It’s time to rebrand, with an eye on honesty.

This was brought starkly home during a recent trip to Melbourne. I worked there in the mid-1980s and found it a pleasant enough city, but not sufficiently special to make me stay longer than two years. I moved to Hong Kong and was captivated. But the longer you stay somewhere, the more comfortable and less demanding you get; and I realise I’ve become far too complacent.

Melbourne has moved ahead by leaps and bounds since I lived there, which makes me realise how little Hong Kong has changed.

There’s culture, art and sophistication in downtown Melbourne; pedestrian precincts, roadside dining, street art and performance, free inner-city trams and large areas set aside for leisure pursuits – all with pristine air to breathe. This is a place that thinks about people and puts them first.

I’m not the only one impressed. The Economist Intelligence Unit has, for the past seven years, put Melbourne at the top of its annual global liveability ranking of 140 cities (Hong Kong placed 45th in the latest, and Singapore 35th). Lifestyle magazine Monocle’s top 25 liveable cities list for 2017 has Melbourne at number five, with Tokyo at the top, Hong Kong 15th and Singapore 21st. US consulting firm Mercer’s yearly quality of living study for expatriates ranked Melbourne at 16th, with Vienna at the top and Singapore 25th. Hong Kong only managed 71st.

These studies take into account factors like rights and freedoms, social and political stability, infrastructure, food prices, rent, public transport, education and air quality. Australian, Canadian and Western European cities usually take the top spots. In Asia, Japanese cities fare best, with Hong Kong and Singapore close behind.

Given that the research is by European and North American firms, their results understandably reflect liberal Western viewpoints.

In a world of globalised business, employment and education, it’s right to expect certain standards. Rule of law, freedom of speech and expression, and a reasonable quality of living are as essential as infrastructure, to attract major firms and talented employees. A city that doesn’t offer such fundamentals is bound to lose out. Cities are expected to follow trends and make improvements.

Melbourne has done that well and it’s paying off, with a booming economy and population growth in line to make it Australia’s biggest city by 2031. Hong Kong hasn’t had such dynamism. Worse, for all the gloating of the government’s Brand Hong Kong website about the city being “anchored on the bedrock of the rule of law”, with a “fair and stable society that cherishes freedom of expression”, there are those among us who increasingly have their doubts.

Recent comments by Beijing officials, court rulings and a continued lack of genuine democracy are just the start. High poverty levels, unfair treatment of ethnic minorities and the elderly, congested traffic and bad air quality say much; there’s been little, if any, change since we started contending to be a world city.

Those denied gay marriage, bike riders told they can’t have cycle lanes in urban areas, those lamenting the lack of outdoor eateries and shopping zones free of vehicles and diesel-choked streets, make plain we’re not what we claim to be.

So let’s rebrand. The obvious choice is Asia’s Mediocre City.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post


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If American and Chinese youth believe in closer Sino-US ties under Trump, it’s time the experts did as well

CommentInsight & Opinion

Tom Plate says optimism among randomly sampled youth about the future of the China-US relationship, and the Donald Trump presidency, may well prove the power of positive thinking

Surprise! Few parents, perhaps ­including those in brand-adoring Asia, realise that Stanford University, on America’s sunny West Coast, is tougher for kids to get into than Princeton, Harvard or Yale. One star centre to which some of its best students – and faculty – gravitate is the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Centre (Aparc), in the heart of the campus. It focuses only on the Asia-Pacific, and no one does it better – whether Harvard or anyone else.

And so, given the fallout from President Donald Trump’s jaunt through Asia, and as I’d been previously invited by the research centre to hold forth on China-US relations, the moment to head up north from southern California had come.

True confession: put me in front of avid students, and I am the happiest clam in the harbour. During the session, one laser-sharp undergraduate, born in Vietnam, had a subtle China question that almost knocked me over. The first-year ­student inquired with indignation why I (allegedly) underrated her home country’s historic and heroic resilience to China’s aggression.

I managed to evade her total moral condemnation only by ­deploying Henry Kissinger’s famous quip about how one can do virtually anything successfully with the pragmatic Vietnamese – except invade them. She liked that.

At the end of the excellent 90 minutes, a brief opinion questionnaire I’d prepared was passed out to seminar attendees. Would relations deteriorate under Trump? Was war with China all but certain? And, if politicians on both sides of the Pacific could be kept from interfering in the bilateral relationship, would the American and Chinese people, even left to themselves, wind up with a better outcome?

I took their responses back to my university – Loyola Marymount (LMU) – and put the same triad of questions to my Asia class. Would there be significant differences of perspective? After all, the Stanford group weighed in much older – ­invited were faculty as well as other adult professionals from upscale Palo Alto, in addition to Stanford students; my Los Angeles sampling was comprised entirely of LMU students, aged 20 to 23.

Surprise again! There were hardly any significant differences. By a composite near landslide of 2-1, the vote was that relations with China would get better under the controversial Trump. Secondly, only 4 per cent felt war was all but certain. (Lopsided and inspirational.) And 78 per cent assessed that US-China relations would improve if only political figures on both sides would park their big egos elsewhere and leave everything to “the people”.

That seemed like genuine California dreaming to me, but what do I know? We so-called experts tend to get bogged down in the details of transpacific tensions [4] and differences – and they are serious ones. But it would be a happy notion ­indeed were the China-US relationship not so poisoned in American public opinion as to be beyond ­redemption – as suggested by these two campus groups informally and very unscientifically surveyed.

As for comparable mainland opinion, this is notoriously hard to gauge. Just as American polling establishments have been messing up – again and again their predictions miss the mark – scientifically solid opinion-taking in China is an even tougher pursuit.

Perhaps a touch more revealing, precisely because it is self-generated and random, are the views of the Chinese people in the heat of social media usage. While monitored by government censors, their social media is nonetheless so sprawling, robust and accessed that, at this point, it counts as virtually China’s “great wall” of self-reflection and revelation. (Westerners who think the Chinese people have utterly no thoughts of their own are very seriously misinformed.)

So a bright, bilingual mainland-born LMU student undertook a survey of Chinese social media opinion of post-trip Trump. Like my quickie polls, this was no rigorous social-science sampling. But it was an ­honest snapshot – and the results were similarly unexpected.

It turns out that the Chinese like what they see of Trump because he is so atypical. Social media users, discouraged from expressing blatant political views, tend to depict him as a TV star and “web celebrity”, with “funny facial expressions” and “using interesting words”.

Reports my researcher: “For these people, Trump is not a negative character for China. He seems really funny and he is nothing like other serious presidents. For them, that seems a big plus.”

Not everyone was positive, of course. Some worried that businessman Trump is one sly fox of a trade exploiter; some referred to the Chinese saying: “A weasel paying a New Year’s call to a chicken, with no good intentions.”

They view Trump as not stupid but worry that he will drag China into the complicated North Korea issue even more.

But, on the whole, the TV star image of Trump appears to be playing nicely in China, notably better than the dreary picture presented by the East Coast US news media.

What I learned last week was no more than a split-second snapshot of the moment, at the end of the day no more conclusive or predictive than is – say – the Dow Jones Industrial stock average at midday.

But for those of us who like to stay positive about the China-America relationship, a bit of sunshine cannot be so bad for our sense of balance. Professor Gi-Wook Shin, the Aparc director, lifted his eyebrows as high as mine over the apparent optimism, in north and south California. Positive thinking can generate a power all its own.

Columnist and professor Tom Plate, whose recent book on China is Yo-Yo Diplomacy, thanks LMU Asia Media staffers Deng Yuchan and Yi Ning Wong for their assistance

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Why, in the age of artificial intelligence, real wisdom is needed most

CommentInsight & Opinion

Roland Chin says with artificial intelligence predicted to eliminate most human agency, ethical and social challenges are inevitable. But those can be met through human wisdom nourished by the arts and humanities

At a time when artificial intelligence (AI) is all set to revolutionise our lives, we must ensure this heartless mighty power is enriched with the wisdom of humankind that comes not just from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects but also the arts and humanities – like creative media, music, poetry and literature.

At a UN meeting last month, one question was about how to help people in parts of the world with no clean water, no electricity, and no internet access. Sophia, Hong Kong’s panellist, responded: “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed. If we are smarter … AI could help proficiently distribute the world’s existing resources like food and energy.”

Who is Sophia? She is a Hong Kong humanoid robot officially invited to that UN meeting. Created by a local company, Sophia has appeared on TV talk shows and called attention to the digital divide made wider by big data and AI. Those blessed with both will gain huge competitive advantages, and those without will suffer.

But the “haves” are in the minority, and over half of the world has no access to the internet. Internationally, AI is being deployed as a strategic weapon in additional to a nuclear arsenal. But AI is problematic, especially in areas that call for subjective moral and ethical judgment, where the repercussions of growing AI application are at once profound and unknown. In embracing its promises, the scientific community is increasingly concerned about the ethical and social challenges it presents. Recently, two AI robots trained to communicate with each other began talking in a language their creators failed to understand, causing the alarmed scientists to shut down the project. Sophia may not be the lovely creature we want her to be.

It is widely predicted that, within a few years, neuro-electronic chips implanted in our body could hardwire our brain so that we communicate not via text or voice, but through brain signals linked to virtually unlimited computing power in the cloud. Just the thought of going to an appointment could automatically trigger a driverless car to pick you up. If a mere thought could trigger an action, then we’d better control our thoughts and fantasies. And if our brain signals are tracked just as our mouse clicks are tracked, then our privacy or even our freedom of thought could be in jeopardy.

Ethical AI-related issues are far more complex than technological ones. Given the moral dimensions of technology, we must recognise that we need to give our younger generations not just a solid grounding in STEM subjects, but also in the arts and humanities.

We must be alert to AI’s impact on humanity in all its ethical complexity. If we take humans out of the decision-making, how will driverless cars, and humanoid and AI-based decisions change our world? Should robocops be allowed to kill? Who is responsible for accidents involving driverless cars, or for robots that go rogue and commit crimes, or when autonomous weapons self-deploy? And what about a human falling for a Sophia 2.0 capable of emotion and affection?

Here I recall the words of the late Steve Jobs: “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.” In the age of AI, liberal arts education is our missing link with the new world.

First, a liberal arts education sharpens our critical thinking, and shapes fresh views and alternative perspectives essential to innovative thinking and to understanding what people really need. Second, it prepares students for change, broadens their horizons, and enables them to face the unknown and the unforeseeable. Third, with its focus on the community, it turns our students into service leaders and civic-minded citizens and moral beings, ready to tackle the digital divide, the AI gap and other global inequalities.

AI turbocharges human efficiency and productivity. People used to say that intelligence sets humans apart. But when intelligence itself is artificial, what makes us irreplaceable is not just brain power, but the human heart. In the age of AI, it is human wisdom nourished through the arts and humanities that can make us whole and our world sing.

Roland Chin, chair professor of computer science and president of Hong Kong Baptist University, has taught and worked in AI

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Hong Kong’s public housing should cater to the masses, as Singapore’s does

CommentInsight & Opinion

Wilson Wong says instead of tinkering with stop-gap measures to ease the shortage of good quality, affordable housing, the government must redefine the nature and purpose of its public programme


Housing is an emotive issue that is deeply embedded in Asian psyches. In seemingly space-challenged Hong Kong, it has effectively become a citywide obsession, dominating many mealtime conver­sations and tête-à-têtes.

While not matching Hong Kong in fervour, land-scarce Singapore [1], too, has its share of housing angst. Both cities try various ways to optimise land use. What distinguishes the Lion City from the Fragrant Harbour is the former’s considerable success in housing the bulk of its population in relatively affordable, high-quality public housing.

In 2016, about 30 per cent of Hong Kong people lived in government-subsidised rental flats while another 16 per cent lived in flats they bought at a subsidised price. The newer flats, both for rent and sale, are actually of relatively high quality, comparable and in some cases superior to those offered by the private sector.

Many Hong Kong residents live in shabby private housing, which includes subdivided apartments in economically depressed areas such as Sham Shui Po. Government statistics reveal that, in 2015, some 200,000 people were living in 88,000 subdivided flats across Hong Kong.

The key advantage of public housing is obviously cost, with monthly rentals going for around HK$2,000 (for a flat for two to three people), while maintenance and management charges are waived. In a city with the dubious distinction of being the world’s priciest housing market for seven years running, this cost advantage is attractive.

However, owing to ineffectual policymaking, there is a dearth of these flats. This acute shortage is reflected in the average waiting time of nearly five years.

Solving Hong Kong’s public housing problem involves a lot more than merely allocating more land for housing. In the short-to-medium term, it could involve more rigorous means testing, so as to ensure scarce public flats are granted to families that have a greater need for them. Currently in Hong Kong, there are about 900,000 households (based on household income statistics) that are eligible for public housing; in a typical three-person household, the income and total net asset limits are HK$22,390 and HK$433,000 respectively.

Thanks to recently tightened rules, affluent public housing tenants will be required to leave if their household’s monthly income or asset level exceeds certain thresholds; under the current system, this would include households with incomes of more than five times the preset limit, and those with total assets of more than 100 times the limit.

In the past, tenants had to give up their flats only if their income and assets both exceeded the limits. Thus, many well-paid individuals could continue to live in public housing by claiming their household assets fell short of the limit. In 2016, at least 26,000 relatively affluent households were living in public housing.

The recent tightening will make it harder for these well-off tenants to stay on. In fact, the thresholds could be tightened further, particularly that for the asset limit. The Housing Authority should constantly review its policy and eliminate any loopholes for exploitation.

Hong Kong simply cannot afford to have relatively well-off families (or lawmakers with a monthly income of more than HK$95,000) occupying space meant for the financially challenged.

To surmount this problem, the Housing Authority could consider building two categories of public housing – one for the relatively well-off and another for the less well-to-do. The premium paid for the higher-end public housing could be used to augment public estate facilities or even to build more public apartments. Both types of public housing should be located in accessible, safe and vibrant neighbourhoods.

Overcoming Hong Kong’s housing problem requires more creativity and boldness than stop-gap measures such as building container homes. Evidently, the provision of high-quality public housing is a costly business, but in a city buffeted by rising income inequality and its accompanying social tensions, it is a price worth paying.

Singapore is evidently the star pupil when it comes to the provision of world-beating public housing. About 85 per cent of Singaporeans live in government-subsidised flats which they own; in truth, these flats are sold on 99-year leases, but that should be sufficient for most cases. The government agency responsible for this superlative housing scheme is the Housing Development Board (HDB).

The city state shrewdly realised from the outset that the provision of affordable quality housing is the bedrock of a strong and stable society. When the board was first founded in 1960, its strategic objective was to provide accommodation for the impoverished. But, within a few years, it changed course to become a provider of mass-market housing.

With this masterstroke, the Singapore government effectively gave every citizen a stake in the country’s prosperity, in the process, cementing the ruling party’s power for the next five decades.

The fact that the government owns the bulk of the land in Singapore (currently around 90 per cent) makes the implementation of an ambitious nationwide public housing strategy all the more viable.

Of course, there are tight constraints on the purchase and sale of these so-called HDB flats, in an effort to curb speculation and keep prices accessible, or to support social aims. For instance, priority is given to married couples while singles are permitted to acquire these apartments only at the age of 35 or above.

HDB flats vary in size, and are generally more spacious than the ones available in Hong Kong. For instance, even a small three-room flat (two bedrooms and a living room) is a generous 650-700 sq ft (typical cost: US$250,000 to US$300,000) while an executive apartment is around 1,400 sq ft; these flats are also located in safe estates with many amenities (such as schools, bank branches, medical clinics, food centres, shopping malls, and bus and train stations).

By contrast, smaller apartments in Hong Kong cost significantly more. For instance, even a small flat of around 300-400 sq ft in Sha Tin, New Territories, could cost around HK$5.5 million, or US$700,000. The acquisition of this minuscule apartment would also require a 30 per cent down payment, rendering home ownership in Hong Kong increasingly out of reach for its youth, particularly those without parental support.

The far-sightedness of Singapore’s public housing system was instrumental to the country’s success. It realised right from the beginning that solving a city’s housing woes is critical to ensuring the country’s long-term stability and economic progress. To put it bluntly, even disgruntled (but well-housed) people are less likely to stage mass demonstrations, if they (being economic stakeholders) are concerned about the potentially deleterious impact on their city’s economy and property prices.

Moreover, the success of Singapore’s public housing policy was due to a highly effective top-down approach, a feat that Hong Kong (long accustomed to a laissez-faire system) would have considerable difficulty in replicating, should the city choose to do so.

To succeed, Hong Kong would have to forge a bold new path, which would involve building more public housing with multiple tiers (somewhat akin to Singapore’s), and implementing effective means testing to ensure optimal allocation, while concurrently imposing measures to discourage speculative activities.

More importantly, the authorities in Hong Kong need to define categorically the nature and purpose of public housing, both of which Singapore firmly established in the early days of its successful housing agenda.

Wilson Wong Kia-onn is an assistant professor in the Department of Accounting and Banking at Chu Hai College of Higher Education